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There is a new vision to get on with the gospel

18 February 2009

The General Synod has found a fresh mood of reconciliation and even penitence, with a few exceptions, says Pat Ashworth

GENERAL SYNOD can wash over the reporter like a wave, leaving no marks in the sand to indicate that it was ever of real import. The pace of back-to-back debates means that, in the blink of an eye, you can have switched from the viability of an Anglican Covenant to the tax benefits of Cumbrian soakaways or the Crown’s position on the guardian­ship of temporalities.

Yet the sessions of Synod last week had a thread running through them of a common determination — a sur­prising penitential quality, allied to a sense of urgency. Synod mem­bers wanted to put teeth into mo­tions: to tell the Government to change rather than “consider” its shameful treatment of destitute asylum-seekers; to urge churches to act rather than rubber-stamp re­ports; to vote against a motion if it was not going anywhere.

There was a robustness about it, a bigger vision, which repudiated the C of E’s habitual navel-gazing stance. The debate on BNP membership got to the heart of that particular issue, eliciting declarations that, however flawed the motion might appear to some, the public had to know that, for Christians, it was simply not possible to speak in the name of Jesus and be a racist.

Synod members were able to ac­knowledge the squeamishness of sec­ular society about the Christian faith, to affirm belief in a special Christian interpretation of the common good, and to rebutt the lie that to evangelise was to be a religious bigot or a funda­mentalist fanatic. A self–declared “dyed-in-the-wool liberal, as dodgy as they come” welcomed teaching on the uniqueness of Christ.

Abuses of human rights brought out passion and commitment, es­peci­ally the debate on human traf­fick­ing. But it was in dis­cussion of the perennially thorny Anglican issues that it was possible to see in the language of this Synod a move­ment towards what the Archbishop of Canter­bury has been pressing for in every sig­nificant meeting: a com­mitment to search for common ground.

He pressed for it again here in a reminder of “what might be lost if the Communion fragmented further or found itself gathering around more than one centre”, and a refer­ence to the “difficult but unavoidable search for the forms of self-restraint that will allow us to keep conversa­tion alive”.

Dr Williams asked: “What are we going to do in a world where people are not going to go away; where the Church of God overall is never going to be as pure as we want to define purity, and where we are always going to be embarrassed by the fact that we bear the same name as people whose views we don’t own or approve?”

You could hear the beginnings of a shift in debate on the latest report on Anglican-Roman Catholic rela­tions: no nearer to doctrinal agree­ment, but a stage on the journey, expressed by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, as “characteristic Anglican confidence in going for­ward together as best we can”.

The Bible had emerged as com­mon ground at a synod of bishops in Rome: “If the Bible is to be a sign of unity, we must study it together. We have no idea where it might take us.”

You could hear it in the debate on women bishops, fraught though the issue remains. It is clear what posi­tions will be articulated when you hear the chairman call: “Mrs Chris­tina Rees, followed by the Bishop of Beverley.”

Yet Sister Anne Williams CA, an opponent of women bishops, ac­know­ledged that the Manchester review group, of which she had been part, had “listened to each other, did not agree, but came to an under­standing and mutual respect for one another, spoke in Christian love, and strove to find a way forward.”

ALL THIS represents progress — the Lambeth Conference ethos perhaps beginning to permeate. It was sad, therefore, to hear what the Rt Revd Don Harvey of the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), now a bishop of the province of the Southern Cone, had to say at an overwhelmingly male fringe meeting hosted by Anglican Mainstream.

The language here was finality. The proposed Anglican Church in North America was spoken of as an existing entity, which, it was hoped, would in time get the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It had been “game over” in 2007, when the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada had ruled same-sex blessings to be not in conflict with the core credal doctrine of the Church, said Bishop Harvey.

“Compromise is not in our vocabulary,” he declared. “Those who say we can live with our diversity don’t know the extent of that diversity. . . We have no choice but to continue the way we have.” Lawsuits and lock-outs represented “a sad mess . . . nothing short of tragic”.

Someone asked him what was happening to the buildings of de­part­ing congregations. In two cases, they had “decided not to share the property with those who so decidedly oppose what we stand for”. Instead, Seventh-Day Adventist churches were proving a useful solution, since they did not worship on Sundays.

I thought of the suffering and courageous Anglicans in Harare, locked out of their churches by the deposed bishop and Mugabe apol­ogist Nolbert Kunonga. They run the gauntlet of armed thugs every time they try to go to church.

The court ruling that they were to share their premises with the Kun­onga faction was iniqui­tous, since they are the lawful Church. But they would swallow their distaste and do even that, for the sake of their witness. This is the spirit of the Synod, I believe, and the vision it is beginning to grasp.

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